Journal ARS Article
Vol. 53: No. 1: Year 1999
Hunting the Plant Hunter: The Search for George Forrest's Grave
The author's search for George Forrest's grave took place during a plant hunting trip to China in 1997.
It was raining when we came to Tengchong, as it had rained much of the time while we explored up and down the Salween. It had rained for George Forrest too as he wrote from Tali-Fu (Dali):
I had the usual downpour in the Salween valley. What a place that is, with heat and moisture just like a Turkish bath...though I have travelled the road many times now, some eight or nine, never yet have I escaped rain in the Salween valley.
But the rain had brought the extraordinary diversity of plants and the plants had brought George Forrest, perhaps the greatest of all the collectors, on his first trip to the southwest of China in 1904. It is a moist and crumpled corner of the world with river gorges running north and south and the monsoon spilling over the Burma border, now Myanmar, to fill the rivers of western Yunnan. Tengchong was then Tengyueh where there was a British Consulate and the Burma border, and therefore safety was not far away.
We had come to look for Forrest's grave.
It was unfinished business in a way. Peter Cox and I had walked many of the muddy hill trails that Forrest had walked in western China and the Salween had been one of his most productive areas. The extent of his collections in China is hard to understand. Some 31,000 plants were collected and in the genus Rhododendron alone Cowan (1952) credits him with 309 new species in 27 different series and 5,375 numbered gatherings. The numbers have since been reduced by taxonomic attrition but still represent a remarkable contribution which cannot now be equaled.
He died of a heart attack when out shooting near Tengyueh in 1932 and he was buried near the grave of his friend, the Consul Litton, in the hillside cemetery that looked north towards the Salween-Irrawaddy divide. In those hills were innumerable plants that had been discovered and introduced by Forrest, among them Rhododendron griersonianum, the parent of many hybrids, and one of the grandest of all, R. giganteum (now R. protistum var. giganteum) which we had found a week earlier in the woods below the pass to the Dulong river.
After enquiring at a monastery where some of the inhabitants seemed of the right vintage to know about such things, we found the Laifengshan cemetery. It had been planted up with oil-bearing camellia (Camellia oleifera) during the Cultural Revolution and had become densely overgrown. It sits on an elliptic hill about two kilometers north of the town and has been for long a traditional Chinese burial ground. We wandered rather disconsolately among the dripping thickets where some of the Chinese graves were still tended, but many were in disrepair and some were now only discernible as a shallow mound. Recycling stones was clearly a local habit.
Near the entrance we found a range of agricultural buildings and the manager told us that the Consul's house had previously stood there. Indeed they pointed out where the tennis court had been. Afternoon tea and tennis at the Consul's house while fractious tribes warred and skirmished in the hills beyond - echoes of an Imperial past came down as we stared at the blank concrete.
The cemetery was vast and clearly not much could be done without more time to make local enquiries and mount a more substantial search. So we headed back into town where we were told that the building of the British Consulate still existed. It turned out to be a strange structure with a Chinese roof topping a very classical building of solid masonry that would not have been out of place in Georgian Edinburgh. Windows had been bricked up and shuttered but over one pedimented door we could just discern the words "HM Consulate."
What was the story? What was the reason for this substantial and very British building, deep in what was then somewhat hostile territory? We wandered, rather puzzled, round the back to find the rear facade pitted with innumerable bullet holes like a poxed complexion. And then it began to dawn. This was a listening post, eyes and ears on the very edge of the British Empire. The French to the south in Vietnam had imperial ambitions and to the north were the turbulent tribes who nearly cost Forrest his life. George Forrest must have passed through the doors of this building many times but what other more furtive visits were made? We climbed on the veranda and peered through the cracks in the shutters. Just sacks and piles of yellowing grain, and perhaps a few ghosts.
When we returned to Kunming the Curator of the Botanic Garden there, Guan Kaiyun, who will be known to many ARS members, suggested that he might be able to help. So it came about that our small group supported by two members of the family, Gillian Cameron and Ian Forrest, arranged for a search to be carried out by a young ethno botanist from the Kunming Institute, Yang Yongping, with another staff member. The report he subsequently wrote makes interesting reading involving searches in the undergrowth and discussions with local people. Sadly he missed meeting 91-year-old Mr. Wang who had worked in the British Consulate as he had gone off to visit his daughter. But with the help of Mr. Wang's relatives and others he managed to locate the area in the cemetery know as "Yang-ren-fen," or Foreigner's Graveyard, and the discovery of an upside-down stone of the missionary Alvar Carlsson confirmed the location. But of Forrest's grave there was no trace. The Japanese had occupied Tengchong in 1942 and had fortified the hill of Laifengshan making free use of gravestones in the process. Then in July 1944 to quote Mr. Yang: "To completely annihilate Japanese enemies in Laifengshan, Chinese army and American air forces had dropped thousands and thousands of bombs in this small mountain." If that was not enough, in the 1950s some local people collected tombstones "for their own construction purposes."
Forrest's memorial does not lie, of course, on a bombed hillside in Yunnan but in the contribution he made to our knowledge of Chinese botany and the plants he introduced to cultivation. Better than any tombstone are the precisely observant field notes written in his neat hand on thousands of specimens in the Herbarium at Edinburgh. But it is good to know what happened, just the same.
Sir Peter Hutchison, a member of the Scottish Chapter, delivered a memorable talk on George Forrest at the ARS Annual Convention in Oban, Scotland, in 1996. He has visited many of the areas where Forrest did his collecting.